Auto Union's Grand Prix racecars of the 1930s were the greatest the world had ever seen. But few know the story of the road car that shared all the motorsports tech with those spectacular racecars. It was called the "Type 52," and it almost became the world's first modern supercar.
In the early 1930s, years before he got his own car company off the ground, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche founded motorsports-development firm Hochleistungs Motor (High Power Engines) with partner and former racer Adolf Rosenberger. With no actual business contracts in hand, the two set upon building a Grand Prix car on spec. The car, whose supercharged V16 engine would sit behind the driver's seat, would encompass everything they'd learned about racecar engineering. This awesome machine would be their calling card.
During the same time, struggling German automakers Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer came together under a single roof — Auto Union GmbH. The Grand Prix triangulation would be complete in 1933, when Adolf Hitler announced a state-sponsored racing program. Owing to the plans Porsche's company had already drawn up, Auto Union got a cash infusion from the state to compete to develop the world's greatest race car (in competition with Mercedes-Benz, which got its own cash award). Auto Union bought Porsche's Hochleistungs Motor, and it was off to the races.
You know the result. Auto Union cars won 25 races between 1935 and 1937, bringing international acclaim to names like Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, and Stuck. But even before the winning began, Porsche (who was simultaneously working on Hitler's "people's car") and chief engineer Karl Rabe had always considered using the principles of the racecars then in development for a super-sports car that could be bought and driven on public roadways.
And so, Dr. Porsche and Dr. Erwin Komenda (who would later design the first Porsche sports car — the 356) drew up plans for a road car, referred to in drawings as the "Type 52." It would get power from the Auto Union Type A's 4.4-liter V16, detuned to 200 hp (from 295 hp). The driver would sit centrally (like the similar McLaren F1 that would arrive more than 60 years later), with seating for a passenger on each side. Maximum speed would be 125 mph (in fifth gear), and the sleek Type 52 would get from 0-60 mph in around 8.5 seconds — an unheard-of figure for the time.
Komenda's styling was pure streamline futurism, the dominant styling of the 1930s. It was heavily influenced, as were the Grand Prix cars, by advances in aviation. But unlike other such cars of the time, gentlemen in top hats would not be accommodated.
It's unclear why the Type 52 project was dissolved. The only evidence the program (if it could be called that) even existed are a few drawings and plans found in the Porsche Archive. But although it was never built, the Type 52 could be considered the granddaddy of the Porsche 911 and Audi R8, not to mention the kings of central-seating, the McLaren F1 and Pininfarina-designed Ferrari 365P Guida Centrale.